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Russell: Court improvements must help Missourians more

Missouri’s courts do a good job now, but must keep working to be “better for everyone,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell told Missouri Bar members Thursday, in her first major speech as the state’s top judge.

“We have set a primary goal to make Missouri’s courts better,” Russell said, “by continuing to improve access to the courts, to clarify services for our users, to ensure procedural fairness, and — perhaps most importantly — to provide timely resolutions so people can have more certainty in their lives.”

Part of that effort involves taking surveys of people as they use the courts, Russell said.

“We can improve if we know what Missourians need,” she explained. “We are visiting courthouses and asking people who use our courts — litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers, social workers and others — how the courts can provide better services.”

The chief justice did some of her own work gathering information.

“You may have heard of the television program ‘Undercover Boss.’ Well, last month, I visited two county courthouses as the ‘undercover judge,’” Russell reported. “Dressed in a T-shirt and capris, I had the opportunity to talk with all types of visitors to the courts. ...

“As I sat shoulder to shoulder with people in the hallways, I could feel their anxiety, their worry and their apprehension as they waited their turn to appear in front of the judge. For most, it was their first time in any courtroom, and they did not know what to expect.”

The experience reminded Russell that, all too often, “a trip to the courthouse is the result of an unhappy event or unmanageable problem. (But) I also was reminded that courts are problem-solving agents and do bring happiness to some.”

Russell, 54, has been practicing law for 30 years. She joined the Supreme Court in 2004 and became its chief justice, for a two-year term, on July 1.

She said one of the changes and improvements in state courts “has been the identification of areas in which the courts’ traditional ‘one size fits all’ approach has given way to a broader, problem-solving approach,” beginning with family courts and then drug courts.

“Now, we have specialized dockets for people dealing with DWIs, mental health issues and nonsupport issues,” Russell noted. “We also have dockets addressing the special needs of our veterans. ...

“Each of these specialized court dockets reflects a conscious decision to focus on the person rather than just the legal problem — with the goal of bringing permanent positive change to individual lives.”

The state already has 13,150 treatment court graduates, the chief justice noted.

She pointed to her own work with the Lewis and Clark Middle School’s “Truancy Court,” helping students “learn about the importance of regular school attendance (and how to) steer away from any course that otherwise might take them toward criminal activity.”

Russell also cited Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer’s work “in developing ASTAR judges, who voluntarily take intensive educational courses to become more familiar with the science and technology issues that may arise in cases,” as another effort by Missouri’s courts to be better in handling today’s complex legal issues.

Missouri’s courts continue adapting to technology, Russell reminded the Bar members gathered in Columbia for their annual meeting.

The Case.net reporting system (www.courts.mo.gov/casenet) has been online statewide since 2008, and implementation of an electronic case filing system for lawyers began only two years ago.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the courts, though, is helping the public understand what they do.

“Our government can never function properly if the people, by whom and for whom it exists, do not understand how our three branches of government check and balance each other,” Russell said. “It is sad that people are able to name three Kardashian sisters, but they cannot name the three branches of government.

“And they might be able to recount all the details of ‘Duck Dynasty,’ but they have no understanding of how judges decide cases.”

She urged more lawyers and judges to become involved in helping the public learn about the courts.

“During this next year — starting with your family and friends and local organizations — I challenge each one of you to teach them to appreciate the importance of courts in their lives and our democracy,” Russell said. And at the same time, we also must listen to them about how we can make things better. ...

“Together, we can make Missouri’s courts better for everyone.”

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